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Roger Federer sees off stubborn Mischa Zverev but not at imperious best

The Guardian logo The Guardian 09-07-2017 Sean Ingle at Wimbledon
Roger Federer celebrates beating Mischa Zverev in the third round of Wimbledon. © Shutterstock/REX/Shutterstock Roger Federer celebrates beating Mischa Zverev in the third round of Wimbledon.

It might be sacrilege to say it around these parts, but Roger Federer is not yet humming at his imperious best. There have been ripples of genius, not sustained waves. Flat spots as well as staggering shots. Even so, the No3 seed was plenty good enough to fend off Mischa Zverev’s stubborn challenge in three tight sets as the evening closed in – now, for the good of his hopes of winning an eighth Wimbledon title he just needs to see off the persistent cold that has plagued him all week.

“I’m definitely feeling better,” he said. “I feel 50% better than I did on Thursday and I’m happy things are progressing well I hope that on Monday I’m back to 100%.”

That will be music to his fans’ ears, but Federer knows he will have to step up a level when he faces Grigor Dimitrov on Monday. “Grigor is in the perfect age right now,” he said. “He is physically strong. Mentally he has made the step up again. I am ready for a tough one.”

Still, three down. Four to go. On grass, Zverev appeared a modest test, given that until this year he had not won a match at the All England Club since 2009 – having failed to qualify in 2012, 2013 and 2016. To make matters worse, the big-serving German had not beaten or won a set against Federer in four attempts, which included being double-bagelled in Halle in 2013. But the No27 seed kept it close before Federer came through to win 7-6 (3), 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 50 minutes.

It is a rare delight to see a persistent serve-volleyer at Wimbledon these days, but Zverev did it with gusto despite the meaty returns coming back at him. Early on his primary tactic was to serve into Federer’s body before feasting off scraps at the net.

But he got a rapid taste of what to expect in the first game as Federer on successive occasions smashed passing shots into his body. This time, however, Zverev’s serve got him out of trouble.

The reprieve was short lived. In Zverev’s next service game, Federer thrashed consecutive topspin backhand winners to earn two breakpoints – and then converted when a forehand return of serve dropped in.

At this stage Federer was racing through the gears like a man desperate to be home in time for his children’s bedtime, but suddenly at 4-2 in the first set Zverev hit a series of punchy returns that earned the break back.

Zverev kept up the pressure, and at 5-5 Federer needed to pull out a 115mph ace to save a breakpoint and then hold. Not that the German, who was thumping in 77% of first serves in, was backing down. Another ace sent the first set into a tie-break and the crowd’s blood pressure shooting upwards.

Federer responded to the crowd’s cheers with an early mini-break and a series of impeccable serves before taking the tie-break 7-3 by firing another backhand into Zverev’s body.

“I think I had really good focus on my serve and on the first shot,” Federer said. “But I had to hang on to it with being down one breakpoint or two breakpoints at five-all in the first set. That was definitely a key moment.”

There was no relenting at the start of the second set. At one point Zverev hit a smash so violently his hat flew off. But, crucially, his first serve was starting to misfire and Federer began to scent blood. A glorious backhand drive volley earned breakpoint at 1-1 – and an equally fine forehand drive sealed the deal. That break was enough to win the second set and by now the No3 seed was in control.

The 29-year-old Zverev has undergone a late-career renaissance this year, beating Andy Murray at the Australian Open and breaking into the world’s top 30 for the first time, but the chances of him coming back from two sets down on Federer’s favourite court were non-existent.

Federer will be back on Centre Court against Dimitrov, whose third-round opponent Dudi Sela pulled out after dropping the first two sets 6-1, 6-1 with a groin injury.

The Bulgarian has never lived up to his sobriquet “Baby Fed” – in fact it has often seemed like a millstone. But the 26-year-old says he has the form to at least equal his previous best at SW19, when he reached the semi-finals in 2014. “I feel my game is better now,” he said. “My physique is better. I’m in a better place in my life, in my head. Those are a lot of positive things.”

All that maybe true – but Dimitrov has never beaten Federer in five attempts. And head cold or not, that is unlikely to change.

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